This article was first published in the October 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine
Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig is mostly remembered today as the archetypical ‘donkey’ who commanded the ‘lions’ of the British army during the First World War. As many historians have demonstrated, this is a grossly unfair caricature of his military abilities, but mud sticks. Once, however, Haig was a national hero. On returning from France in 1919 – after leading the British army to victory on the western front in 1918 – he was hailed as the saviour of his country.
Remarkably, in the nine years of life left to him, Haig became even more popular as the champion of the rights of ex-servicemen cast adrift in an uncaring postwar society. In the course of writing The Chief: Douglas Haig and the British Army, it became clear to me that Haig’s role as a powerful supporter of war veterans was hugely significant but little appreciated today.
In the 1918 general election, Prime Minister David Lloyd George had promised a “fit country for heroes to live in”. The reality was very different. The postwar political situation was volatile. In the background loomed the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. At home the industrial working class was flexing its muscles. Against the backdrop of a difficult economic climate and serious industrial unrest, the Labour party emerged as a serious candidate for power, and the country faced the immense problem of reintegrating millions of ex-servicemen back into society. Many veterans were unemployed. It was bad enough for the able-bodied, but for the disabled, struggling on meagre pensions, it was far worse.
At this time, Haig emerged as an outspoken advocate of ex-servicemen, and from 1921 as president of the British Legion, the primary veterans’ organisation, he was a power in the land. His prestige made some on both left and right of the political spectrum uneasy. In Italy in 1922, the Fascist party, led by an ex-soldier, Benito Mussolini, had capitalised on the discontent of veterans and overthrown the liberal regime.
Similarly, unstable postwar Germany saw the flourishing of a variety of anti-democratic groups of the left and right based on ex-servicemen. In 1923,General Erich Ludendorff, Haig’s principal opponent on the western front from 1916 to 1918, became involved in an abortive coup in Munich, led by an obscure ex-corporal, Adolf Hitler. Some in turbulent 1920s Britain asked if Haig might have similar aspirations.
The answer was an emphatic ‘no’. Haig’s views were moderate and conservative, and he was committed to upholding the constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy. It was as well that he was. To play the game of counterfactual history, if Haig had had political ambitions, and placed himself at the head of a political movement of war veterans, at the very least it could have had a destabilising effect on British politics. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that it could have derailed democracy.
As historians such as Martin Pugh have shown, democracy in interwar Britain was more fragile than often believed. Despair at the failure of the system to deal with the country’s problems led to considerable sympathy for authoritarian groups, including Mosley’s British Union of Fascists.
There are of course many reasons why Britain did not go down the anti-democratic path. That Douglas Haig threw his weight firmly in favour of the status quo and thus acted as a force for political stability was one of them, hitherto unnoticed by most historians. His innate social and political conservatism was a factor in his decision to get involved in veterans’ affairs, but this was not the primary reason. In speech after speech, Haig spoke of his admiration and gratitude to the men who had served under him in France and Flanders. He does not seem to have acted from a sense of guilt. Rather he was influenced by the paternalistic ethos of the Victorian army officer. His work with ex-servicemen was a natural extension of the credo of noblesse oblige, that privilege entailed responsibility, which had governed his professional career.
Haig planted his standard as the champion of the war veteran in July 1919, with his evidence to the Parliamentary Select Committee on Pensions. He stated that he was “appalled” at “the methods of the state to provide for the disabled” before turning on the medical boards, claiming that some “lacked all sympathy and generosity… and treat every wretched individual who appears before them as a malingerer”.
His anger belied his reputation as an unemotional, reserved man, and his passion on the subject, allied to his huge prestige, made a great impression on the members of the Select Committee. He had refused the honours that the state offered him until there was a more generous pensions settlement, making himself very unpopular with the establishment. By August 1919, Haig believed that he had won a significant victory over the government on pensions, and accepted an earldom, and a grant of £100,000.
Haig set out in unambiguous language the parameters within which he intended to operate. By stressing the non-political, by which he meant non-party, nature of his approach, he served notice that he did not have any personal political ambitions – unlike his contemporary, Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, who moved into party politics, only to be assassinated in 1922. Wilson was described by historian Bernard Ash as a “lost dictator”. Haig’s prestige was such that he was a much more credible candidate to lead a military party in politics if he had so chosen.
It is clear that Haig saw the Legion, which was created through the amalgamation of rival veterans’ groups, as an instrument of social control. In a private letter in 1920, he stated that he hoped that in a unified veterans’ organisation, the conservative Officers’ Association would act as a stabilising influence on the more leftwing groups.
In the event the Legion had none of the political power and radicalism of some continental veterans’ bodies. Nonetheless, the image of the hugely popular field marshal ‘commanding’ a peacetime ‘army’ alarmed some on the left, who feared the Legion would be used as a paramilitary force for strike-breaking and suppressing disturbances. The Legion was denounced as Haig’s ‘White Guard’ (a reference to the Russian civil war), ‘Anti-Bolshie’ and ‘Fascisti’. The leftwing Daily Herald ran a campaign against what it saw as an embryo fascist movement, with a ready-made British Mussolini.
Saved from bloodshed
Some of Haig’s public pronouncements stoked the fears of the left. In 1926 he publicly stated that, by incorporating veterans’ groups with ‘Bolshevik’ tendencies into the Legion, Britain had been “saved… from bloodshed”. Similarly, Haig referred to the General Strike of May 1926 in apocalyptic terms, and claimed: “There was no doubt that the Legion, by supporting the cause of law and order, saved the country from bloodshed and attempted revolution.”
Haig was obviously unconscious of the contradiction in his speech, of claiming that the Legion had been simultaneously impartial and upholding the status quo. Clearly, he held the not uncommon belief that possessing conservative views was the same as being ‘non-political’.
In reality, although the General Strike was far from being a revolutionary movement, the Legion in the midst of it had published an appeal that called for ex-servicemen to support the authorities. This appeal was controversial and divisive, particularly among Legion branches in working class areas. For all that, Haig retained his popularity in the Legion during his lifetime and even more so after his death in 1928.
Like many others in the 1920s, Haig admired Benito Mussolini. Fascism at this time had a wide appeal to those disillusioned with postwar Britain. After meeting the Italian dictator in February 1926, Haig was quoted as saying: “What a man!… He really is exceptional.”
Like many British admirers, most famously Winston Churchill, Haig downplayed the violence in the fascist regime, respecting a strong leader and the corporate state. Haig was worried by developments in postwar politics: Bolshevism; industrial militancy; and the threat to the empire. Writing at a time of increased industrial militancy – the General Strike was only a couple of months away – he declared: “We want someone like that at home at the present time.” But it would be as misleading to label Haig as fundamentally antidemocratic as it would to tar Churchill with the same brush.
It was not only the political left that was worried by the British Legion’s political activities. In 1926 there was an attempt by some branches to allow the “use of the whole force of the Legion… to oppose every parliamentary candidate who has voted against the pensions policy of the Legion”. Haig received a letter from the Conservative government, in which he was urged “in the interests of the British Legion to invite those responsible to exercise restraint”. Haig hastened to reassure the government that the Legion’s constitution would not change, and that he felt the “strength of the organisation” was opposed to such politicisation. His reaction shows that fears that he would turn the British Legion into a far-right paramilitary militia were very wide of the mark.
That is not to say that suspicions of Haig were completely unreasonable. His predecessor as commander-in-chief on the western front, Field Marshal Sir John French, had been overtly political, in 1915 becoming involved in a conspiracy with the press that played a role in bringing down Asquith’s Liberal government.
But Haig was a different sort of man. Like any high commander, he had engaged in political activity while dealing with the government. But there were very clear lines he would not cross. His comments on the Maurice case in 1918, when a senior general had publicly accused Lloyd George of lying (probably accurately), are significant: “This is a grave mistake. No one can be both a soldier and a politician at the same time. We soldiers have to do our duty, and keep silent, trusting to ministers to protect us.”
No one doubts Haig’s importance as a military commander, for good or ill. His generalship has been endlessly debated by historians. By contrast, his postwar position as the de facto leader of war veterans has received little attention.
In the 1920s Haig was a very significant figure on the postwar political scene, in a time of great instability, both for what he did, and perhaps more importantly, what he did not do. It is time that Douglas Haig’s post-1918 career was integrated into the wider history of Britain in the early 20th century.
Gary Sheffield is professor of war studies at the University of Birmingham. His book The Chief: Douglas Haig and the British Army was published by Aurum Press in August. All quotations are taken from this book.
Timeline: Douglas Haig
1861 Born in Edinburgh into a wealthy whisky distilling family. He has an elite education at Clifton College in Bristol and Brasenose College in Oxford
1885 After doing well at Sandhurst, he is commissioned into 7th (Queen’s Own) Hussars, a smart cavalry regiment. Later he goes with the regiment to India
1898 After staff college, where he is seen as a coming man, Haig fights in Kitchener’s Sudan campaign. This is his first active service
1899 Shortly after the outbreak of the Boer War, Haig goes to South Africa as a staff officer and later commands troops in the field
1906 Begins association with the secretary of state for war, RB Haldane. Haig is Haldane’s right-hand man, carrying out vital reform of the army
1914 Takes I Corps to war on the western front. He seals his reputation with a fine performance on the defensive at the first battle of Ypres
1915 Succeeds Sir John French in command of British Expeditionary Force on western front. His first and most controversial battle is the Somme (July–November 1916)
1918 Haig leads BEF to victory in the Hundred Days campaign (August to November). He forms an effective partnership with Marshal Foch, supreme Allied commander
1921 Becomes president of the newly created British Legion, having retired from active duty in 1920. He first spoke publicly in support of veterans’ rights in 1919
1928 Dies in London aged 66 and is mourned as a national hero. Vast crowds turn out in London and Edinburgh to pay their respects